“I bet you’re looking forward to your first Christmas with the baby!”
Some variation of this has been said to me repeatedly since my wife and I welcomed our daughter in October. I could reply with a simple, “Yes, thanks,” but it seems more useful, more educational, to challenge people’s assumptions instead.
So I usually smile and say, “My family is Jewish and we don’t celebrate Christmas.”
Unfortunately, this is nearly always met with blank or confused stares and sometimes even disturbed frowns. Most people continue the conversation with a question such as “So where will you celebrate Christmas?” or “Will you dress your baby up in a little elf outfit?” or “What are you buying her?” or even “But Jews celebrate Christmas, too, right?”
There’s the obvious matter of Christmas being about, well, Christ. The average Jew isn’t usually too interested in celebrating Christ, but for some reason a lot of Christians– whether they’re religious or just nominally Christian–don’t seem to understand that. I never faced such confusion when I lived in the U.S., but in the U.K., Jews seem to have a much lower profile. In my experience, British people regularly seem unaware that there are Jewish people living here, and so they don’t understand that Jews might have other beliefs or habits.
One of my colleagues berated me one year for wishing my students a happy winter break; her argument was that it was rude not to say “Merry Christmas” because “everyone celebrates Christmas.” I pointed out that some of our students were Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or some other religion, or no religion at all, and that it seemed to me that I should acknowledge that. She still disagreed, claiming that Christmas was cultural more than religious, and that it was a holiday for all.
In a way, she’s right. I suppose for many people, Christmas is primarily a commercial holiday, a time to spend money they don’t necessarily have on presents their friends and relatives may not actually want or appreciate. Sure, it’s also a time for family get-togethers and big meals, but given how excited and stressed people get about shopping, it often seems as though the gifts are the main event.
Frankly, for many Jews, Hanukkah amounts to much the same thing these days. And while I recognize how fun it can be to watch children open presents, their eyes alight with joy at receiving something they have longed for, I’m personally not sure that I want to pass on the message that a buying frenzy leads to happiness. There’s something rather sad to me about seeing everyone rush into shops to buy, buy, buy, increasing the debt on their credit cards and worrying about how they’ll manage until their next paychecks.
I’d rather stay at home with my family and spend time together, not money. And if we are going to exchange gifts, they could be practical or educational ones. I remember getting items like socks or underwear, and once I got a puzzle of a world map, and I loved putting it together and studying the locations of other countries and the names of their capital cities.
Anyway, our daughter is an infant. She won’t understand why there are wrapped presents or what she should do with them. When people say they’re buying their newborns gifts, I’m not quite sure why. But maybe I’m just a scrooge.
So when I’m asked about our Christmas plans, I try to politely explain that Jews aren’t generally the church-going, Christian-holiday-celebrating type. When this proves difficult for some folks to understand, they accuse me of not having a holiday spirit or being against Christmas. If Christmas is just about gifts, then I am against it, in the same way I’m against Hanukkah just being about gifts.
So what are our holiday plans then? We’ll be enjoying time together as a family and traveling to visit relatives so they can meet the baby. And I’m not completely grumpy and anti-holiday, so we’ll probably slip a latke or two in there as well. Hopefully our daughter will enjoy her latke-flavored breast milk and be intrigued about tasting the real thing in a year or two, once she’s able to learn about why we eat such foods, and perhaps I’ll even give her a world map or a pair of socks as well.